I’ve written a few times now about failure and the lessons we can take from it (see Epic Fail and the Glory of Failure) . This has been firmly based on learning from failure in order to be successful, creatively, commercially or operationally. The code of Fail fast, learn and move on.
Jon Ronson had a slightly different take on the subject – In the last episode in the current series of Jon Ronson On… Aiming Low… he asked what if embracing failure was the way to go? Would it make you happier?
He summed up our current attitudes to success nicely with:
Fear of Failure is the scream in our ear when we wake up in the morning, the hurricane that sends us hurtling through the day.
The programme talked to a number of people who had decided to remove themselves from pressure by simply refusing to make life a competition.
Comedian Stewart Lee – one of the most popular comics of the 90s with Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard Not Judy – decided that constantly chasing success was simply not for him, the trappings of fame and success were not as he had once envisaged.
He said the pivotal moment was attending show business party with dwarves dressed as Christmas elves serving drinks and canapés – at that moment he decided he needed a change of direction.
“it was the single most naff thing that ever happened to me,” he said
He made a conscious decision to drop out. To work under his terms.
“John Hegley who’s a veteran and one of the founders of alternative comedy, said if you go back to every 18 months to the same arts and the show’s 80% different and you’ve always got something to sell like a CD or a book then the economics of that are totally doable… It’s about perception and from a practical level it makes more sense.”
Ronson admits he has become snared in some never-ending success spiral but admires those who consciously embrace failing. Like cult comedian Frank Sidebottom.
Ronson was a keyboard player in Frank Sidebottom’s band and says the papier-mâché mirth-maker loved failure.
“At a gig in Dudley, the crowd were so disregarding that they split into two teams and played football”
Sidebottom called this his best gig ever. And it seems he was genuinely happy with his career path. Never bitter about the success enjoyed by the people he inspired.
Sidebottom’s son recalls how, when supporting Bros. in front of 50,000 fans at Wembley he geed up the crowd by shouting “Hands up if you love Luke”, and the crowd went mad, Hands up if you like Matt and they all cheered. Then he said hands up if you like Betamax and they all went quiet. Promoter Harvey Goldsmith was apparently not amused.
The final interviewee was a guy called John Burke. Hugely intelligent, a former University Challenge winner and runner-up on mastermind. Ronson seemed genuinely surprised that he had chosen to work as a postman, to which Burke explained himself:
“Riches have never bothered me… I stumbled into this job, it’s no stress whatsoever, you just go out and enjoy yourself, you’re driving round the most beautiful countryside, it’s a no brainer really, I’ve got plenty of time to do the things that I want to do. You should just try to be more happy.”
Thought provoking, touching, fun and genuinely great radio. You can catch up with the series archive at JonRonson.com